Tactical Magnified Scopes – A Guide

Tactical Magnified Optics

Telescopes (or ‘scopes for short) began appearing on rifles during the American Civil War (1861-1865) about a hundred years after rifles themselves were invented. These optics greatly aided every aspect of making a long range shot, from the bare minimum of finding and identifying a target, to surveilling the area for threats (like counter snipers), checking wind, more accurately estimating the movement speed of the target, and the distance to it.

The art of being able to do this on the fly…as well as meticulously, for long periods of time and in novel situations. These sorts of necessities are key to a scope being “tactical” as compared to perhaps most other consumer scopes on the market. Ruggedness is as important as image quality and informative, tough reticles. This more often translates into prices that can really compare directly to value at the highest ranges, but there are plenty of solid optics outside of the $1500 and up club….at the same time if there was any firearms accessory it’d be worth splurging on, it’s the optic: This goes doubly for so called “tactical” scopes.

Just a little math, y’all

The key component of most tactical scopes is the “mil” scope, “mil” for milliradian. There is a really long and drawn out way to explain what a milliradian is, but I’ll keep it brief.

There are two ways to map out a circle, as degrees, or as a function of good ol’ fashioned pi (~3.14). MOA of “minute-of-angle” is one sixtieth of a degree: A milliradian is a measure of the pi one, where a “radian” is the angle of the moment when the amount of the circles circumference is the same length as the radius. A milliradian is one on-thousandth of a radian. There are 6283 milliradians in a circle. In a mil-scope the distance between various features of the reticle will translate into distances downrange that can easily be calculated in the metric system, and imperial units with ease, precision and efficiency. The precision aspect is the prominent necessity for a tactical scope, the optic allows for very precise measurements at extended ranges in the form of standardized patterns of bulges, balls, hashmarks and lines. A sniper doesn’t need to rely on any other device but their optic to map out an entire area, or take wind estimations and create rapid holdovers at times when it can be crucial. Although any reticle can be used to range find….it’s going to have to be translated into mils to be practical for anything tactical. 1 mil makes a 10 cm wide dot @ 100m, so adjusting in .1, .25, or even .5 mil adjustments is much more practical than and MOA adjustment system. 1 MOA is ~1 inch @ 100yds, at 1000yds that’s about 10 inches. Even is a scope has 1 MOA adjustments, it’s going to take a lot of clicks to move anywhere significant quickly. Sure, an MOA First Focal Plane (FFP) could be proportional to a mil reticle, but it’d need mil adjustments to be efficient to adjust and manage in dynamic shooting scenarios in training, competition or the field.

The Reticle

Since the reticle is the universal yardstick for any task the shooter might need an optic for, a major distinction between tactical and less specialized optics is that the tactical scope typically has the reticle in the first focal plane as opposed to the second. This really only applies to variable power scopes, and the sum of it is that if the reticle stays in one proportion to the image as the zoom increases and decreases then any markings on the reticle have different values at different ranges. In addition there it’s possible to have zero shift at different magnification settings. Having a first focal plane reticle is essential for a tactical scope. A mil should be a mil, there doesn’t need to be the added complexity of having an extra table of what the mil markings represent at each zoom setting.

The alternative to the mil-scope is the Ballistic Drop Compensation (BDC) type reticle. A great example of which is the Advanced Combat Optical Gunshight or ACOG made by Trijicon, which has various types of BDC reticles for the calibers of 5.56 NATO, 7.62 NATO, and .50 BMG. Some of these types of optics have range finding features in the reticle like simple tables that show range of markings that denote specific heights and widths at different ranges. The Elcan and PSO have good examples of this feature. The key thing with any BDC feature, whether it’s the reticle or an adjustment knob, it’s only good for one bullet: One weight, one velocity, one caliber. If you want a different BDC, you get new turrets, if they’re available. The PSO has some sort of universal BDC mechanism. For long range tactical scopes, especially variable power scopes the mil is a more reliable and omnipotent system in the adjustments and the reticle. One thing a BDC can’t do is reliably account for wind, or moving targets at various ranges in any practical manner.

A BDR Reticle

Gotta be tough

Making a precision optic “rugged” is about more than just have a rigid scope tube machined out of a block of solid aluminium, it’s about having tough lenses, a tough reticle, and well assemblies like the adjustments for windage and elevation. Tactical scopes have to hold a zero in tactical conditions, which could mean rapid changes in temperature, being submerged in water, falling down a flight of stairs, the recoil of thousands of rounds; as well as the ever unpredictable but guaranteed drops and fall, as well as all manner of climates. As well, even the most expensive Nightforce optic isn’t going to add up to much if you skip on the rings and/or mounting system.

A scope that will hold a zero and remain reliable in adjustments after years on a work gun through years of faux pas and hard use is the foundation of a scopes quality as a long term investment. A failure in the structural integrity of some part of the scope, a scratched lens, or a broken reticle rapidly degrade the utility of any optic exponentially, negating the other crucial aspects. After all, what good is a clear and bright image if the reticle has snapped off inside the scope, or the scope tube has moisture inside of it and the lens fogs up; or the turrets come out of true somehow?

Clarity required

Image quality is a function of lens design, objective lens size, and lens coatings. To start off, no telescope is going to transmit 100% of the light from its image, anyone who has ever looked through a telescope can notice that it does seem a bit dimmer than the ambient light. This effect is exponentially more powerful during dusk an dawn, times where it may still be too bright to run night vision, especially at dawn, and images through the scope lose their detail. Image quality is a backbone of a scopes tactical qualities since the tactical shooter will have to be able to not only identify targets, but also seek them out…including the #1 target for any tactical marksman or sniper: Opposing snipers, or counter-snipers. The difference between having the image clarity and crispness to see a sunbeam off a piece of netting half a kilometer away can mean life and death.

However with the continued use and development of AK and AR -15 rifles, the development of military optics for intermediate ranges and intermediate cartridges promised to do great service to a technologically solidified and growing category of tactical weaponary. Outside of a few aberrant designs, the magnified optic, or any optic at all was seen almost exclusively on military sniper rifles, this only began to change as optics became more affordable, and warfare evolved in the mid-20th century. Through the development by military forces, compact and dependable medium power optics saw expanded use in civilian hands in the pursuit of game or sporting competition. Fast forward to the modern battlefield and any modern army in a combat theatre can hand out optics to a majority of their front line troops, from Trijicon ACOG‘s to the Elcan M145 and all the developments in precision optics that have taken place for the designated marksmen and snipers on the front. The leading innovator in practical tactical optics for the infantryman however was the USSR and their Warsaw Pact universal mounting system which while outdated, is still a rugged and reliable way to clamp a scope to a gun.

Tactical scopes for the AK-47 and AR-15

The Kalshnikov series of rifles has grown from a pair of 7.62x39mm carbines to a plethora of rifles in 7.62×39, the fast and incredibly lethal 5.45×39, and its western counterpart, the 5.56×45. From the 47 to the 107 and onward, an AK today will have a variety of recoil systems, finishes, features, and even controls, and increasingly sporting optics common on AR type rifles like the Elcan SpecterDR and the Trijicon ACOG. However, it’s important to note that unlike AR’s, AK’s and other Soviet weapons had proprietary optics developed specifically for them and the mounts integrated on the receivers. The magnified optics are generally very rugged, easy to use, and incorporate universal Ballistic Drop Compensation (BDC) which can be adopted to a variety of calibers as long as the data on the rounds is known.

Perhaps the most rugged, original, economical, and simplistic of these optics is the good old fashioned Pritsel Snaipersky Optichesky or PSO for short, which translates into “Optical Sniper Sight”. Although it was intended for use on the SVD, it fits the universal Warsaw Pact mount. Its a practical tactical 4x optic with a reticle that includes chevrons for bullet drop, a rudimentary (but effective) rangefinder, and hash marks for windage which can also be used for range estimation. The PSO can be had for a range of prices from as low as ~$50 to around $120, depending on the origin of manufacture, condition, and of course the seller. The optical tube is built for a magnesium alloy which makes it very lightweight, although somewhat brittle in comparison to steel or aluminium optical tubes. The rangefinder portion of the reticle is what really makes this an excellent tactical optic, it consists of a sloping dotted line over a flat one with markings from 200 meters to 1000 meters for a 1.7 meters tall target, or about 5 feet 9 inches. This allows you to quickly gauge range rather accurately on anything about “man” tall out to beyond the effective range of any AK type rifle. Being such a rugged scope and inexpensive scope as well, with a decent field of vision makes this ideal for any type of shooting from plinking to hunting to anything up to roughly 500 meters. It isn’t the brightest optic, or the most refined, but it certainly works and won’t hurt your checking account in any noticeable way.

Elcan sights

Next up is the Elcan SpecterDR, a much more expensive option, but one that offers more versatility for close range than the PSO, as well as a wider field of vision. The SpecterDR is a variable zoom optic that was created to fill the needs of the United States Special Operations Command or USSOCOM for short. They (and the DoD at large)  were already using the fixed 4x variant (along with the Canadian military) and just needed something with a little more versatility in the field. The Elcan SpecterDR is about twice the price of the 4x because the SpecteDR switches from 1x to 4x with a simple throw lever, and maintains the same eye relief between both settings, making it simple to train on and use one either zoom position. Special Operations in the Russian Federation already use Elcans on many of their weapons from MVD to GRU units it can be spotted pretty regularly on the 1913 Picatinny rails that have become ubiquitous on the modern fighting AK in the very nation that saw its birth, as well as that of the now rather outdated, though rugged, Warsaw Pact universal mount. The reticle is where the Elcan SpecterDR shines as well, it’s designed to cater to the drop of either 5.56 NATO or 7.62 NATO depending on which model you purchase, and has markings out to 1000 yards for bullet drop that move into open rings at 600 to allow the user to easily spot impact signature. The reticle also possess a range finding element that is similar to the PSO in that it allows for range finding based on a man sized target, however instead of a gradual curve from 200 tmeters to 1000 meters the Elcan has steps at 300, 400, 500, and 600 yards. As for the bullet drop aspects of the reticle; given that the 5.45 x 39 and the 5.56 NATO are ballistic twins, the 5.56 NATO models can suffice for 5.45 AK’s (as well as the 5.56 NATO models of course). The Elcan also proves its worth when it comes to brightness and clarity, due to the high efficient broadband coatings on the lens. It also sports a red illuminated reticle powered by a common CR2032 lithium battery used in many weapon sights like the Trijicon RMR.

Elcan sights have been in use for decades by military forces worldwide and the SpecterDR is a sight that really displays the accrued wisdom and development based on the legacy and current use of the OS4x and M145 fixed 4x sights. It’s an all in one combat sight that’s rugged and built for battle, making it more than sufficient for any casual, competition, or hunting usage. In fact the Elcan can really shine on the competition field due to the variable zoom and common eye relief shared between both zoom settings. This comes especially handy in Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR) type matches, as well as 3 Gun events and anything rifle oriented in between due to the ‘both eyes open’ style of shooting that the long eye relief allows for, as well as the instantaneous switch from 1x to 4x, and the informative yet user friendly reticle design. This quality comes at a price though, and the Elcan SpecterDR is going to set you back a bit shy of $2,500. However for that amount you’ll be getting about the only tactical optic you will need for any non precision situation within the effective range of an AR-15 or AK rifle, the 7.62 NATO AR-10 variants however need a bit more magnification to really identify and accurately engage man-sized targets at its max effective range. As well, accurized AR-15 rifles being used for target shooting, varmint hunting, or long range engagements in intermediate chamberings more suited for 7.62 NATO ranges (like 6.5 Grendel or 6.5×47 Lapua) also require some advanced magnification to really wring out their true potential.

Trijicon sights

The Trijicon ACOG is likely the most well known fixed power tactical optic ever developed, particularly from the United States. The 4×32 model is the most popular among them, and used internationally throughout law enforcement and military units. 4x is great, after all with the Bindon Aiming Concept (BAC), but it comes in a larger and more powerful order. There is a model in use by the British on their AR-10 Designated Marksmans Rifle (DMR), the “L129A1”, a mildly modified LMT308: The 6×48 model. It’s noticeably larger than the 4x model, but 48mm objective lens aid in image clarity and crispness. The model for the L129A1 is in metric to allow for the whole milliradian experience while incorporating a BDC in the reticle. It also has very fine MOA  adjustment knobs with four clicks making a differences of one inch at 100 yards, or about a quarter MOA per click. As far as fixed power tactical scopes go, 6x is about the highest it’s useful to go on a rifle not meant for extended range precision shooting. As far as it could be a “tactical” scope, the United States Marine Corps has relied on 10x fixed scopes until recently, which speaks for the fact that taking simple construction and ease of usage as main priorities isn’t a bad thing. Fixed power scopes have less moving pieces to keep in true after tough use, and a lot of recoil impulses.

The fixed power optic is always going to be the bottom line in ruggedness, 10x is most common for long range tasks, but 14x slightly above can become necessary options for extreme ranges paired with a range range round. Not only are they the toughest magnified optics from the drawing board; they’re also mechanically invulnerable to many of the complexities variable power scopes are. The fixed power optic also has no issues with focal plane, the reticle is the reticle and it’s been made just for that magnification setting.

However, today the variable scope is a standard of tactical marksman’s weapons: zooming up from 1x, the highest it’s practical to go is about 8x, anything stronger isn’t getting beyond a 5x-25x variable zoom. 3x-9x I s a common arrangement, as is 4.5x-14x, but anything close to that can provide the zoom to really spot and analyze a target, the zoom to make shots on, and enough of a low zoom to allow measuring close things as well as fast things, and large things. The lower zoom settings are also crucial in acquiring targets and switching from area to area without scanning a dime sized piece of real estate at 270m through a 14x fixed optic on an anti-material rifle, or long range precision rifle, dial down to find a place to closely examine at a higher zoom level; and shoot at a comfortable medium to notice details on the follow through.   

The Elcan SpecterDR mentioned before could be at either 1x or 4x, but it had no transition between the two, that is, there was no 2x or 3x, just a lever switch between the two. Variable power scopes technically include the SpecterDR, but in the tactical category of rifle scopes, you will find it is likely the only modern tactical optic with that feature. Most variable power rifle scopes have some sort of twisting feature near the eyepiece marked with various points with power factors for the scope.

With a heavy sigh, to emerge into this part of the article we have to talk about parallax. The basic explanation of parallax is to stick your thumb out, point it at something, and then move your head around. Your thumb will appear to move, but really it’s your eye changing alignment with your thumb relative to what you’re looking at. That can also happen looking through a telescope since you’re really looking at a series of lenses to see the image they captured. As your eye moves relative to the ocular lens the reticle can appear to move off the point-of-aim (POA). In rifle scopes as the focus of the scope is changed, the parallax can increase due to the objective lens and the reticle lens not being in the same focal plane. To keep it tactical, this absolutely needs to be able to be adjusted for in scopes, and there are two ways to do it: Have a feature which allows the objective lens to be adjusted, which is a simpler but requires looking at, and manipulating the front of the optic. The second way is the have an adjustable internal lens between the objective lens and the reticle to cast a focused image on the reticle based on its adjustment. Which is more complicated than the former option, but allows for the parallax adjustment turret to be right next to the windage and elevation knobs in a rotating turret that can be glanced at from behind the optic and adjusted with two fingers.

That’s it. That’s the customer guide to parallax. It exists, it can be compensated for in scopes with the choice of an adjustment knob. The Leupold Mark 4 Long Range/Tactical (LR/T) series has this feature for example, near the label of “FOCUS”. It’s a feature on a lot of optics, but a necessity for tactical scopes. The standard approach of just making the scope parallax free at a narrow bandwidth of ranges or otherwise not having a parallax adjustment won’t work in the dynamic nature of tactical shooting. Optics from other top makes that have the adjustment knob a standard feature on their tactical scopes is Schmidt & Bender, US Optics, as well as Nightforce. These four companies are making top quality tactical scopes, with all four having longstanding optics in service with NATO armed forces and law enforcement.

Schmidt & Bender are perhaps most notorious for their 1-8x ShortDot, a staple in competitive 3 Gun, as well as the modern battlefield. The ShortDot comes in a few variants, but the original is a first focal plane optic with the very fine one click = 1cm @ 100m that’s thematic on the Schmidt&Bender tactical line. With a 24mm Objective lens, it isn’t the best suited for identifying objects at long distances in high detail. Will it make the 400m and beyond engagement easier? Of course, but the difference between hitting the center of the targets mass and being able to differentiate uniforms, different types of equipment, and details like hand signals or other details. In tactical operations, a sniper will generally be directed onto a target in cohesion with a spotter who will be constantly doing calculations and feeding them to the sniper for action, and the spotter has a very powerful telescope; often 45x at the low end, and in excess of 80x at the higher end. Why does a sniper need anything over 9x or 10x outside of extended range engagements? Let alone the high end of the 5-25x featured in the Nightforce NXS F1 (designating it as an FFP scope, many other Nightforces are 2nd focal plane.) or the Schmidt & Bender PMII?

The answer is simple: Why not?

Seriously, if a scope can keep a reasonably clear, crisp and bright image at a high zoom  then let it. With a higher zoom a sniper can get talked onto targets that are dressed in some sort of standardized clothing (a common situation in tactical doings), but at a lower zoom the tactical operator can’t see as well, and while a spotter can try to call out details from a 60x optic, the sniper may be stuck looking through a 10x that makes that crucial detail less observable. Also, the other 99% of field time the tactical marksman is probably looking around at things that won’t get shot. Taking data constantly based on what they can see, which maybe be close to or more than a kilometer away. Over long distances wind can be different over the whole area. Wind can also be erratic and unpredictable, just like anything in a tactical situation, so keeping track of that and other variables that may only appear at a high zoom need to be.

This really requires excellent lens coatings, lenses, and lens assemblies. This is where the money can really come in if you need this to be a long term relationship. Perhaps the highest end of this can be found in the Schmidt & Bender PMII 5-25×56. A rare quality in variable zoom scopes is a reliably crisp image. A decent test for any variable zoom scope is to see how crisp the details of images stay at various ranges; there’s no functionality on zooming in on bluriness.

All in all, there are long held brand landmarks in the tactical scope arena, but the manufacture of precision optics becomes more advanced and accessible with time and while the high quality makes for variable power tactical scopes may only be a small bundle, the fixed power market is a lot deeper while clinging to tactical qualities. It needs to have mil adjustments and and a mil reticle that stays in one focal plane. MOA works on an optic designed to be zeroed and left there like an ACOG, but on anything with a long tube mil is the (only) way. The scope needs to be tough, and reliable of course, but just as importantly it has to have a high rate of light transmission as an ambiguous image at any power setting could mean overlooking a crucial detail. Of course, if the scope in duct taped to the gun it’ll basically just be a very abuseable monocular. For an optic to work on a rifle, rings and the mount have to be a lot tougher than the scope as a starting point. Nearly any modern firearm action can be accurized far out of the reach of a budget 2-65×90 scope named the ‘Zeus’ or something.